Leighton Middle Odyssey: Episode Four
Suzy doesn’t know if she can make it in time. She’s running so fast that she can hardly feel her legs at all. She’s not even sure if she’s really running, or falling. But, somehow, she gets to the bottom of the hill. There’s no time to stop and think. Her parents’ blue car has almost reached the corner.
Suzy runs into the road, straight into the path of the oncoming green car.
The shrieking of skidding tyres fills her head. Everything gets mixed up, the green bonnet is in front of her, looming impossibly big, and then - somehow - under her. Suzy feels herself lifted up, up so high she could almost be flying, and then there’s a great loud juddering crash. She hits the tarmac, and then she can’t feel anything much at all. Just the sun on her face, and a light breeze in her hair. Car doors slam all around. Shouts, then whispers. Footsteps.
“Why has she got a magic tree in her hand?” It’s a young girl’s voice.
“Darling, get back into the car. You don’t want to see this. There’s a lot of blood.” Mum’s voice is shaky, but it’s Mum. It’s really Mum.
Suzy on the ground opens her eyes, just a little bit. Through a haze of bright sunlight she sees a girl, a few years younger than herself, but still, recognisably her. Standing, staring. But what is she doing here? Suzy wasn’t even in the car that day. And how can there be two Suzies? It’s all too much to think about, it’s just too confusing.
“I’m calling an ambulance,” Dad’s voice, Dad’s wonderful voice sounds like it’s coming from a long, long way away. Suzy loves him so much. She wants to reach out and touch him. She wants to do that so badly. But she can’t move her hand to reach out. She can’t move anything at all.
There’s a big blackness stepping towards her. Suzy has come such a long way, and she is so very, very tired.
* * * * * *
The old man’s breath is rasping, gasping in his chest, but there are no tears left in him. He can’t cry any more. The air hangs around him, black, and cloying, filled with his sadness and despair. He lies, stretched out, face downwards on Lily’s grave, holding the darkness close against him as if it could give him comfort.
He realises that this might just as well be his own grave. His own grave, one day, will be covered over with moss and with grass, just like this one. No-one will tend for it after he’s dead and buried. No-one will care that he’s gone. Who is left to care? There was only ever Lily, for him. Only Lily and she’s gone and will be gone forever.
Perhaps he should make for the portal, go home again. But what’s home but an empty flat with nothing but a sad and lonely Christmas tree to stand against the darkness? What will he do if he goes home, anyway? Sit by the window of apartment 13F, and watch the world go by while death creeps towards him? No. Never again. Better that he stays here and dies. Stays close to Lily. There is nowhere else he would rather be.
He senses movement in the trees behind him. He turns over, and leaning up on his elbows tries to see what’s coming for him now. Where did the movement come from? There’s a flapping of wings to one side of him and for a moment he thinks he sees something lurching out of the dark towards him, reaching out for him, grasping. He flings his arm over his face.
And then a voice, from over the other side of him. A soft, gentle voice. “Are you O.K?”
* * * * * *
Jane makes her way cautiously to where the darkness gathers around the trees. In the gloom she can see the old man lying on the ground, in front of … is that a gravestone, or just a rock? It’s so covered in undergrowth that she can’t make it out.
“Are you O.K?” Jane asks him, again. He’s got his arm over his face as if he’s shielding his eyes from a bright light but he doesn’t answer her. He just sobs, quietly.
Jane takes a step towards him, and then she sees something shining on the stone, glimmering through the moss. As she steps closer, and closer, the thing on the stone shines brighter, until she can see it, clearly. The light is outlining the shape of a rat. Not just any rat, but the very same rat that Jane wears on her belt buckle. The belt that they found with her, when she was abandoned as a baby.
Now Jane’s right up close to it and right up close to the old man, too. He smells stale, and musty, like an old deserted building that no-one’s been near, for years and years. But the smell is familiar, too. The rat on the stone is shining brightly, now. So very brightly and Jane is bathed in the purple and silver light that shines from it. It’s the same light that was shining out of the tree portal, way back in the school grounds. What’s going on?
As the light touches her skin Jane feels as if she is being pulled apart. Countless forces are all tugging at her at the same moment. She is everywhere, and she is nowhere. She can see the market girl, turning towards a green car with her arms outstretched. She can see a girl with purple, mottled skin soaring above her, reaching out. And she can see the old man, lying at her feet, staring at her with his mouth wide open. She can see everything, and the light is still pulling at her, and Jane doesn’t know where she is, or who she is or when she is … and then all of a sudden the light is gone, and Jane falls to the ground only she’s not Jane, not any more. Jane has remembered her true name and it seems to her that this is the only thing she knows and has ever known. Her true name is Lily, and she can’t believe that she’d ever forgotten it, not for all this long time.
* * * * * *
Mary takes hold of the boy’s hand and they walk together along the pathway through the forest. The trees sway and creak, but the sun glimmering down through the leaves makes them shine like crystals, and flowers of all colours and sizes are bursting into life around them. Mary feels too warm, and too happy to be wary, and the sunshine dazzles her eyes and makes her feel almost sleepy.
Every so often Mary reads a little from the book in her hands. When the first story is over, she turns the pages quickly, looking for other stories, for other enchanted forests, so that the world they’re wandering in won’t ever end. Mary keeps reading, sometimes from this story, sometimes from that one, picking and choosing the pages at random.
The castle - which at first seemed very far away - comes closer, and closer, until all of a sudden they are walking over the moat and in and under the portcullis. For a moment Mary fears that the spikes might come crashing down on their heads but then they’re stepping inside the cool stone walls.
Everything is silent, and covered in moss and thick undergrowth. There is no king, no courtiers, and no princess. There’s nothing but stones and moss.
* * * * * *
The girl with purple skin holds fast to the broom beneath her, soaring in and out of the trees. She can see the two children, heading for the castle, and every now and again the girl’s voice reaches upwards in the stillness of the air, reading aloud from her book. Every word the girl speaks comes alive around them.
The forest taking shape is beautiful, that’s true enough. But the girl with purple skin feels dread, prickling at the back of her neck. Something here is not quite right. The path that the children are walking on twists and turns as if it has its own ideas about the direction they should walk. The trees sometimes lean inwards, blocking the children from view, sometimes they spread apart, to let the light in. The land is constantly shifting, rearranging itself, changing shape.
As the little girl flits from page to page, from story to story, the girl with purple skin feels herself changing too. One moment, she’s a goblin looking down on the children, wondering what they would smell like, feel like, taste like. The next, she’s an angel, then a witch, a mother, a fairy. Each story sounds horribly familiar, and the girl with purple skin knows that none of them end well.
The story reaches out and grabs hold of her, but she twists free of its grasp, flying out and over the bright, rainbow colours that seep out from the book like a tidal flood.
Just over the brow of the hill stands a castle. It casts long shadows down onto the land below. The castle looks solid, unchanging. Like it’s stood there, exactly the same, for thousands and thousands of years. That looks like a good place to land.
* * * * * *
Timothy Johnson and the girl look all around them.
“Where is everyone?” The girl’s voice echoes and comes back to them, repeating over and over. Suddenly, as if it has just sprang into life, Timothy hears the sound of trickling water. In the centre of the castle courtyard, they find an old fountain. It’s covered with green moss, but the water is gushing, as fresh and clear as if it’s sparkling with diamonds. The air around the fountain seems to tingle against Timothy’s skin. He sees something lying in a tangle of weeds nearby, and reaches out for it. “It’s just an old rag”, he says, but as he lifts it out his hand catches on a bramble, making him gasp out loud.
“You’re bleeding!” cries the girl. She takes the rag, rinses it out in the fountain water, and dabs at the blood on his hand. Then she casts the old cloth away.
“Look!” Timothy points towards it. The rag is lying flat on the ground, and letters, then whole words, are forming on it, growing like moss in strange, looped handwriting. The girl bends closer to read it aloud:
“Tread carefully. Look wisely. Your destiny lies along the pathway, linked with others you will find there.”
Timothy Johnson feels a change in the air, as if something has shifted around them. He feels as if the trees have eyes, or perhaps it’s something terrible slithering through the weeds, about to gobble them up, all up. “Something’s coming for us!” he shouts, and grabs hold of the girl’s hand again.
There’s a sudden wind in their faces, and a swish of darkness. A tall, thin figure - a girl - is standing in front of them. Her cheeks and arms are slashed with scars, like purple ribbons, that form a strange, intricate pattern all over her skin. She stands with her head tilted slightly to one side, looking at them curiously, brightly. Like a sparrow, or a hawk. Then she speaks. “My name is Ecall-Quella-Bella,” she says. “And I have journey’d far, from the Land Within, to find you.”